John Lahr’s “Show and Tell,” a collection of his profiles from the New Yorker, turns out be more intriguing and more cohesive than might be expected from such a catch-all book. Its kiddie-tinged title is not incidental. Read consecutively, and with a few exceptions, Lahr’s portraits blend to become a many-faceted examination of how a gaping absence of love, attention or security in childhood — or, more often than not, all three — becomes the motor that drives an artist’s need to show and tell all to the listening world.
This unifying theme is surprising, since the subjects of these “short exercises in biography” are an oddly diverse assortment of brand-name figures on the cultural landscape. The earliest profile, a thoughtful appreciation of Roseanne, dates from 1995; the most recent entry is a piece about Mike Nichols published in February. In between, Lahr spoke to David Mamet, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Arthur Miller and Wallace Shawn, among others, about their work and their lives, and the intersections between them.
Lahr’s standard format is a tricky, but usually successful, combination of typical celebrity chat, straight biography and critical analysis. (A few pieces, on Sinatra and Irving Berlin, for example, necessarily dispense with the interview portion.) The relentless topicality that is (in my view) a blight on the Tina and post-Tina New Yorker requires Lahr to engage in a distracting amount of puffery surrounding the subject’s latest endeavor (all too often it’s a minor addition to their oeuvre: Nichols’ “What Planet Are You From?” or Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You”). This slight blemish aside, Lahr’s essays retain their interest thanks to his elegant prose, numerous insights on the work (particularly comedy) and the author’s ability to induce his subjects to talk about the painful personal histories that their art draws on.
From Mamet’s devastatingly cold parents to Bergman’s fire-and-brimstone minister father to Berlin’s years of dire poverty, Lahr examines the sense of deprivation in childhood that mercilessly drives these artists to seek and find emotional redress from the larger world through their art.
Successful filmmakers and peerless singers may remain “fundamentally inconsolable,” in a phrase Lahr uses to describe the condition of the great comedians. But, ironically, an artist’s neverending sense of loss is often the culture’s everlasting gain.